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The world’s 10 biggest insurance claims

From terrorist attacks to flu pandemics and floods, here are the 10 most expensive disasters to hit insurance companies around the world in the past decade, according to Zurich North America. The list is chronological and based on the number of lives lost, overall business impact, and the geographic scope and duration of the crises.

by Victoria Bischoff on Sep 29, 2010 at 00:01


Nearly 3,000 people died in the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 which destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade centre.

Insurance companies had to pay out around $40 billion in insured losses. Around a third of this total covered business interruption claims, while other claims included damage to property and vehicles, life insurance, liability insurance, aviation liability and workers compensation.


The 2003 global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) started in Guangdong province of China and within weeks spread to 37 countries around the world. There were 8,096 known infected cases of the pneumonia-like disease and 774 confirmed fatalities.

Airlines were forced to ground flights to infected areas, businessmen stayed away and in many areas shops, restaurants and hotels were forced to close due to so little business.

U.S. / Canada power outage

The Northeast blackout in 2003 affected an estimated 10 million people in Ontario, Canada and 45 million people in eight U.S. states.

Virtually all businesses suffered as a result – flights were grounded, trains were cancelled, traffic lights failed, the internet was down, mobile phone networks broke, factories were forced to shut, restaurants and hotels had to close. Many areas also lost water pressure because pumps didn’t have power.

Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami

The undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Boxing day 2004 resulted in one of the worst tsunamis in history, killing 227, 898 people. Indonesia was the worst affected area, accounting for around 170,000 deaths.

The economic impact of the disaster was also devastating, with countries affected suffering huge losses in the tourism and fishing industries. Insured losses for property were estimated at around $1.3 billion, life and heath at $250 million and travel losses at $50 million.

Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma

The Atlantic hurricane season in 2005 was the worst in history. There were an estimated 3,865 deaths and record damages of around $130 billion.

The economic consequences of the storms were also far reaching, resulting in speculative spikes in the price of crude oil and heavy damage to crops and harvests.

Financial crisis

The collapse of several banks and insurance companies such as Lehman Brothers, Northern Rock and Bear Stearns in 2008 triggered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Stock markets crashed, the credit crunch happened, businesses around the world went bust, governments were forced to bail out banks, the housing market suffered and unemployment hit an all time high. All and all it has cost the insurance industry billions.

China earthquake

The earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan Province in 2008 was the deadliest earthquake to hit China since 1976 and one of the costliest natural disasters in Chinese history.

It killed around 68,000 people, left at least 4.8 million people homeless and caused an estimated $20 billion worth of damage – most of which was not covered by insurance. Millions of livestock and a significant amount of agriculture were also destroyed.

Swine flu pandemic

The swine flu or H1N1 pandemic has resulted in 18,000 deaths since it began in April 2009 - approximately 4% of the 250,000 to 500,000 annual influenza deaths.

In Mexico, where the outbreak originated, nearly all public services such as schools, theatres and restaurants shut and people would only venture outside wearing a mask.

However, many people have criticised the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the media for exaggerating the danger and spreading panic unnecessarily.


The Icelandic volcanic ash cloud crisis in April this year forced airports in the UK and across Europe to cancel flights for six consecutive days, leaving thousands of passengers stranded overseas.

Disruption to flights then continued for weeks, having a serious impact on businesses and the travel industry, with airlines losing millions of pounds each day.

Floods in Europe and Pakistan

The 2010 Pakistan floods, which began in July, were the worst the country has experienced in decades. It is currently estimated that over 2,000 people have died while millions others have been left homeless and jobless.

Meanwhile the floods in central Europe over the summer resulted in at least 37 deaths, while thousands more had to be evacuated. Poland was the worst affected area.

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